So by now I must be one of the few people on the planet who has not seen the Kony 2012 tape. It’s not because I don’t want to know about Kony, but rather that I already know too much about the man: his weird biblical fervour, his forcing of young children to not only join his army but to kill, maim and rape family members before doing so (smaller, weaker children are often killed on the march), his use of girls as sex slaves for him and his Lord’s Resistance Army gang, and the fact that, for years, thousands of children had to walk every night to safe towns from their outlying villages to avoid being press-ganged. I also know that he has been free to roam from one dysfunctional African nation to another, sowing violence and death among unprotected villages and towns along the way for 26 years.
So, no, I haven’t seen the tape, but I have been following its progress and the growing debate around its usefulness. It is probably one of the most viral videos ever, going from a few hundred hits last Monday to more than 26 million on Friday. Who knows where it’s at today.
The debate has grown apace. I won’t get into all of it — the Guardian does a great job of capturing its depth and breadth on its website. But most of the criticism of Jason Russell’s endeavour has to do with the fact that he doesn’t deal with the complexities of the situation — at all, really — that the situation itself has changed and, mostly, it would seem, that he is calling for an army, preferably that of Uganda, to go in, like the Cavalry in an old western and save the day. And if not them, then the U.S. army.
The NGO Jason Russell heads, Invisible Children, has been working on this issue for several years now, and this is probably the tenth such video it has produced and disseminated. It doesn’t really do humanitarian and/or development work, rather seeing its job as mostly one of advocacy and raising awareness around Kony and his horrific crimes. One thing it has done, according to Hunter Heaney of The Voice Project, has been setting up an early warning system, allowing communities to warn each other of LRA incursions. What’s more, he says, “there are only about 250 fighters at this point, but they’re still displacing half a million people in Congo.”
For me, the point is that this phenomenon is occurring in the void left by governments and policy makers and even, to a certain extent, the mainstream media. Rather than talk about or look for effective measures to counteract or capture Joseph Kony, they have done little if anything to enlighten or assure us. When it comes to the region in general, world leaders, especially those in the United States, have created the empty space into which this film with all its emotional shock value has flowed.
Instead, they have a history of supporting and financing local leaders or governments, regardless of how they treat their people, when it suits their interests and rail against or ignore them when it doesn’t. Along with those kinds of policies go decisions on aid like development assistance, on when to pay attention to a crisis and when not to.
It is a context in which, for example, Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, then head of the United Nations peacekeepers in Rwanda, warned the United Nations in 1994 that Hutus were breaking a peace agreement by stockpiling weapons and was told to forget about it. A context where not only was then-Under-Secretary General for peacekeeping Kofi Annan never held to blame for the resulting massacre of 800,000 Tutsis, but was promoted to head of the U.N. instead.
It is a context where the impact of the complete lack of government accountability and violence on the desperately poor of eastern Africa is forgotten and neglected, but their plight painted as somehow innately cultural and incomprehensible.
Little wonder then that an emotion-spearing film by a small group of people with access to modern technology and mass communication can fill that void with a tremendous onslaught of sound and image, quickly picked up and spread far and wide by millions of shocked youth. (According to YouTube, most viewers are between the ages of 13 and 24.)
I think it is short sighted to find fault with the bearers of a message, however flawed and incomplete, and miss the lack of attention given the message itself by those in power.
But I agree with many of the film’s critics that what the people of northern Uganda, the victims of Kony and the LRA need most now is a chance at new and better lives. That’s why I continue to admire the work done by The Voice Project and any other NGO, like ActionAid, that is looking for ways to help, and compliment the mega-attention Kony’s crimes are now receiving with concrete solidarity. Now is a good time for them to step into the breach with more information and, best of all, the possibility of some indigenous solutions. Kony 2012 may only be part of the story, but it’s up to the rest of us now to look for ways to complete it.
“There are millions and millions of people around this planet who have never heard about Kony and never cared,” says Heaney, “and now they do.”
(And as the debate grows and reactions spread even further, I am going to add a link here to a news item from Al Jazeera, showing those of the people to the film in ( one town at least in ) northern Uganda.)